Team Canada no longer has room for Lecavalier and Thornton
Vinny Lecavalier and Joe Thornton are battling for Canada's final center spot
The superstars now seem ordinary and expendable as Canada gets younger
If Lecavalier starts strong, Thornton will likely watch the Olympics from a beach
Calgary -- The last time Vinny Lecavalier actually had to make a team was ... well, never.
And the last time Joe Thornton had to make a team ... was, well, almost never.
Making teams are for other guys, not the gifted and precocious and iconic. But as Canada Red and Canada White departed the Pengrowth Saddledome after Day 2 of the Most Serious Olympic Hockey Orientation Camp in the world, it seemed apparent that there would not be room for the both of them next February.
Of all the subplots that suffuse this three-plus days of fun and occasional games -- TSN hockey host James Duthie cracked that the foursomes at the team golf outing on Tuesday afternoon would be analyzed for insight into who might be playing with whom in Vancouver -- the math involving two of the leading centers of their generation is the most intriguing.
If you pencil in Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf as the top two centers -- Crosby has been in the middle between Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla while Getzlaf isn't skating here because he is still recovering from a sports hernia injury -- there is a spot open for a third-line center. (The guess is Mike Richards or Jonathan Toews will center a fourth-line/checking line or be the 13th forward.)
There are other natural centers in the 46-man camp who can easily shift to the wing -- Eric Staal, Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau are the most notable among them -- but Lecavalier and Thornton basically are big portfolio, old-time, one-spot guys. Thornton slips to the left side on some shifts in San Jose when Marleau fills the middle, and Lecavalier skates well enough to play along the wall. But unless coach Mike Babcock gets fancy, one will make it as a center and the other will be sipping drinks with little umbrellas on a beach during the Olympics.
The goings-on here and especially the first three months of the NHL season will be a referendum on two of the most notable players of their generation.
Lecavalier has had the better start at camp, skating well and shooting the puck with more authority than he has in the past two years. Thornton, while still clever, seems more lugubrious on the ice. On a team that Babcock intends to build around speed and playing 200 feet, Lecavalier looks to have an advantage -- or at least as much of an advantage as anyone can in August.
Lecavalier and Thornton are linked by more than a virtual cross-conference NHL competition for a spot on one of the toughest teams in the world to make. They share symmetry if not necessarily a history, a past that does not quite echo the other -- Lecavalier played for a Stanley Cup-winner and Thornton has famously never come close -- but one that has tiptoed down otherwise eerily similar tracks.
Thornton was the first overall pick in the 1997 NHL draft. Lecavalier, of course, followed a year later in that same lofty spot. The early years of their careers were hardly sanguine for either. Lecavalier, whom the Tampa Bay Lightning's owner of the day proclaimed to be hockey's Michael Jordan, was prematurely given the captaincy and then had it snatched away when it was apparent that he was in over his head. Thornton -- who lost a letter himself, the San Jose Sharks' "A", just in the past weeks -- had to endure questions about his leadership, especially after the Boston Bruins blew a seven-game series to Montreal in 2004 which their captain didn't register a point. (He was playing with damaged ribs.)
Lecavalier was a whipping boy of former Lightning coach John Tortorella, who would extract greatness from him, while Thornton was battered by the Boston media for his being a big galoot whose passion for the game was not as visceral as some of the typists would have liked.
But as they moved into their mid-20s, they had become virtual Team Canada locks. Thornton was excluded from the 2002 Olympic team (just as Sidney Crosby would be deemed too callow in 2006), but the Boston center was thrilled when Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky phoned to let him down gently. Thornton seized his rightful place on the 2004 World Cup team, where he played impressively with Shane Doan and Kris Draper on a shutdown line.
Meanwhile, Lecavalier, coming off his Stanley Cup win in 2004, was one of the first names anyone in Canada jotted down before that pre-NHL lockout tournament that September. While Canada was snubbing Crosby and choosing Staal as a taxi-squad guy for the 2006 Olympics, Big Vin and Jumbo Joe were automatics to provide points and conspicuous strength up the middle.
But after Canada suffered a humiliating shutout against Switzerland and was blanked again by Russia in the quarterfinals, the paradigm shifted overnight. An overhaul was in order. So it hardly matters that Thornton, the NHL's Hart Trophy winner in 2005, has the most points post-lockout. (He has one more than Alex Ovechkin.) The perennial failure of the Sharks to fulfill their playoff promise has become as much of a part of Thornton's legacy as his points. And while Lecavalier was thrown into the best-player-in-the-world discussion as recently as a year ago, the fecklessness of his Lightning and a nagging shoulder injury last season turned him into an ordinary superstar.
"Last summer I couldn't really train the way I wanted," Lecavalier said. "It was a tough year for myself and the whole organization. When you finish last (in the NHL), it's never fun. For five or six years, we had the same group of guys, a core group that had the chance to get to know each other. Last year I got to Tampa, I felt like I was the one who got traded. This year we're going to get to know each other better. That's why we're doing this here -- getting to know each other. That's how you get to be a team, how you gel.
"With the new Canadian young guys, it's a lot of competition. There are a lot of great centermen. But I'm very motivated to make this team. Just to be part of this team is very special. Whether it's taking draws in the defensive zone -- I'm not saying I'm that good on draws -- or whatever, I'll do it. Whatever they want."
The attitude is a reflection of Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman, whose career divides neatly into equal halves of offensive wizardry and all-zone combativeness. Thornton has the will, but he doesn't necessarily have the wheels to be the all-zone player that a Toews and Richards can be.
"Of course any player will do anything he's asked to make this team," Thornton said. "You see the guys here and you say, 'Damn, there could be two pretty good teams here.' But I really never have played wing. If I make it, it'll be at center."
Thornton's best hope is a sizzling start, certainly a possibility given the Sharks' sour first-round playoff defeat by Anaheim and the subsequent fallout in which Marleau lost the captaincy and Thornton was busted from alternate. (Thornton said this week that the decision by coach Todd McLellan might prove to be "innovative." Listen, the Shamwow is supposed to be innovative. The demotion was just embarrassing.) But if Lecavalier is healthy and productive, Thornton will have a long hill to climb.
This vast country isn't big enough for the both of them.
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